Martyn McLaughlin: Scotland leaving Braveheart behind

Mel Gibson's 'sea of blue faces and bare bums' is now an anachronism, whatever its most fervent supporters may say
Mel Gibson's 'sea of blue faces and bare bums' is now an anachronism, whatever its most fervent supporters may say
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A politically mature Scotland has moved on from the hysterical cries of ‘freedom’ of 20 years ago, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Twenty years ago today, Braveheart was released in cinemas around the UK. It is an anniversary that has heralded little fanfare, save for a low-profile screening of the film this Thursday at Stirling’s MacRobert Arts Centre. There will be no stars in attendance or red carpets rolled out. The evening is merely an act of synchronistic opportunism on the part of local tourism bodies – the same venue hosted the film’s European premiere back in the day.

The film has been used for political ends. Picture: Getty

The film has been used for political ends. Picture: Getty

It pales in comparison to events across the Irish Sea, where Trim Castle, the Norman stronghold in County Meath used as a major filming location during production, recently played host to 1,200 people at an all-day festival, complete with an outdoor screening of the film, battle re-enactments, archery lessons and a video message from Mel Gibson.

The Stirling date represents an underwhelming commemoration of a film which helped fashion cultural and political attitudes. Even a decade ago, the idea that Gibson’s three-hour epic would fade into irrelevance would have been unconscionable. For most of its shelf life, Braveheart has exerted a keen influence on Scottish life, but the silence which surrounds it nowadays feels fitting. Like the blend of nationalism it gave rise to, it belongs firmly in the past.

If ever a snapshot was needed of the changing face of the SNP, nowadays the very model of an established centrist government, look back to the evening of 8 September 1995. Seizing upon Braveheart’s release, the party’s canvassers congregated outside multiplexes with a clutch of literature designed to seize upon the allegiances of audiences emboldened by Gibson’s mangling of Blind Harry’s stanzas.

Featuring a photograph of the actor, the message on the leaflets was uncomplicated to the point of being trite. “Today it’s not just bravehearts who choose independence – it’s also wise heads, and they use the ballot box,” they stated. “Independence – we need it more than ever.”

Such was their popularity, the party ended up financing three print runs of the flyers. Mike Russell, then its chief executive, explained that the film represented a “substantial opportunity for the SNP to reinforce our message”.

In light of the party’s slick and considered strategic operation over the past decade, the literature seems like an amateurish, unfocused stunt. It was the product of a post-Thatcher, pre-devolution Scotland, a place where debate surrounding national identity and matters of constitution dwelled slavishly on events of the past rather than looking forward.

Far from ending with the premiere, the hysteria whipped up by Braveheart hardened. Some 28 per cent of its British box office takings came from Scotland. Its cry for freedom became a persistent energy that invited otherwise circumspect individuals to take leave of their senses. Revisiting a few of the episodes resembles a parodist’s account of Scotland at the turn of the millennium.

Take the film’s inexplicable success at the Academy Awards, for example. After it became the worst film to win best picture since Out of Africa – one of five Oscars it took home – Braveheart’s popularity and resonance was seized upon feverishly by party grandees of various hues.

The nadir was probably the fax sent by Michael Forsyth, then secretary of state for Scotland, to Gibson, which employed grammar as crude as its sentiment. “We hope you will haste ye back for another winning production,” it stated.

The same year saw an Early Day Motion laid down in the Commons by SNP MP Roseanna Cunningham, asking that the House “expresses its concern at the lack of graciousness exhibited by Max Hastings and the staff of the Evening Standard in their coverage of the magnificent Oscar-winning achievements of Mel Gibson and his film, Braveheart.” The newspaper’s crime? To declare Sense and Sensibility, released the same year, the better film.

Or then there was the furore in 1999 whipped up by the usual BBC-baiting elements of the fourth estate in protest at the corporation’s decision to schedule the film’s terrestrial premiere all of four months before the inaugural Scottish Parliament elections. It was enough to have you reaching for your broadsword.

Echoes of these stooshies could be heard infrequently during the lead up to last year’s independence referendum. Political commentators who descended on Scotland like Dr Johnson were unable or unwilling to grasp the nuances of the Yes campaign; the Braveheart phenomenon became a cheap and convenient trope used to paint a movement in broad strokes.

Throughout Scotland itself, meanwhile, the imagery of Braveheart and William Wallace (or at least, Gibson’s depiction of him – a woad-smeared hybrid of male supermodel Fabio and environmental activist Swampy) was relegated to major sporting occasions. In the same way the SNP gradually phased out the use of lion rampant flags, Bannockburn banners and other symbols of romantic nationalism from official gatherings, Braveheart found itself extraneous.

It is a trend that is in large part down to the SNP’s electoral success. Pluralism and policy debate has supplanted emotive emblems and hoary old gripes about an ancient war of liberation. Braveheart turned into a form of burlesque. Whatever muddied meaning or relevance it once had were undermined by the changing political landscape as well as those who tried to appropriate it – the “jump the shark” moment came in 2006, when Fred Goodwin and his pals at Royal Bank of Scotland marched to the rostrum of their AGM to a bagpipe rendition of James Horner’s film theme.

Historians from Hollywood will say I am a liar, but 20 years on, Braveheart’s sea of blue faces and bare bums is an anachronism, a bad film that did good things for tourism. Especially in Co Meath.